This interview with Khavn de la Cruz, which was originally published in Portuguese in the catalogue of the 1st Fronteira - International Documentary & Experimental Film Festival, resulted from my first contact with his films.
Overall, it remains, for me, an interesting exercise in something I would call dialogic film criticism, so I decided to publish its original version, in English, with some minor adjustments.
Khavn wrote his answers in blue in a Word document I sent him with my comments and questions (and he also included two images that I inserted exactly where he put them); below, my questions are displayed in italic, while his answers follow them as quotes. It is also worth noticing the interview was divided into topics before he answered my questions.
You’ve been called the "enfant terrible of Philippine Cinema” (by Giovanni Spagnoletti, Festival Director, Pesaro International Film Festival), as well as the "Che Guevara of the digital revolution” (by Jose Victor Marin, Festival Director, La Palma International Digital Film Festival). Other references when commenting your work include Luis Buñuel, punk, Dogma and Lars von Trier, among many more. What do you think of such identifications?
It's a handle. Some way of clueing other people what it is I do. It's a label that on the one hand makes communication easier and on the other makes it impossible, makes it fail.
Is there any other reference that you would use to define your work (another director, artist etc.)? Why?
Vasko Popa. His poetry is very simple but at the same time, very mythic, very dark. Then there’s Beckett, Kafka, and Borges for the absurdity, the black humor. A great work is something that’s both easy and difficult, accessible and impossible to hold.
The use of digital media is an important asset for many contemporary video/filmmakers, from Nollywood and its circulation across borders to metropolitan video art within galleries that shelter art works from around the world. How would you describe your own position among the multiple available possibilities of digital media?
I’m not sure of the position, if there is one. I just keep shooting while and wherever I can. The first goal is to be prolific, to create till I drop. The second goal is to keep both freedom and integrity. To quote Aki Kaurismaki, “The obligation to eat does not include the right to prostitute art.” Unless prostitution is for provocation, a mockery, an assault.
"This is not a film by Khavn"
When you sign your films by denying your own signature (“This is not a film by Khavn”), what do you mean?
It’s a joke I play on myself, referring to the sincerity and at the same time artificiality of authorship. It also borrows from the surrealist joke by Magritte, “This is not a pipe”, poking fun at the definition of film because really, what is a film?
My mother, for instance, does not think I make films. She forces me to watch movies starring Sylvester Stallone and Jean Claude Van Damme, and then she tells me to make films like those. So if you ask her what her son makes, she will have trouble answering you. The most definite answer she can give you is that her son makes something. Constantly.
Considering the relationship you establish with both professional and unprofessional actors, as well as extras, during the shooting process, would you define your work as collaborative?
Absolutely. It's a give and take thing.
Even if I'm not working directly with actors, I consider filmmaking as a collaborative process with the world, with life itself.
Considering the relationship you establish with people and places that make up the locations where you shoot, would you define your work as collaborative?
All the time. I let life in at all times, which means I welcome who and what’s at hand as much as what’s been planned.
One of the recurring themes in reviews of Mondomanila (2010) is its relationship with the tradition of Mondo films, as well as contemporary forms of “poverty porn”. How do you understand such relationship?
Regarding Mondo films, the point is to expose the darkness, to bring things into the light, so that in the end, what was strange in beginning becomes familiar, a part of you. The artificiality and silliness of the juxtapositions create absurdity which works to heighten the spectacle, at the same that it diminishes it in self-mockery.
Regarding Poverty Porn, poverty is pornography. It's a catchy phrase, but it's not new. It's what the Italian neorealists were doing, even Charles Dickens: embracing poverty.
Mondomanila is simply a story that needs to be told, regardless of labels.
Tony de Guzman’s direct appeal to politicians, which at once breaks the convention of the fourth wall in cinematic mise-en-scène and creates a disturbingly fictionalized indictment of social inequality. Do you think the film displays some sort of political orientation? Which one (right, left, libertarian etc.)?
All of the above and none of the above. When all the institutions and systems in place are anti-poor, the only option is disco anarchy.
Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda Marcos; José Rizal
On more specific grounds, your films address important political characters of Filipino history - like Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, or José Rizal - as well as crucial representatives of Filipino cinema - like Lav Diaz and Lino Brocka. EDSA XXX - Nothing Ever Changes in The Ever-Changing Republic of Ek-Ek-Ek (2012), for instance, uses a futuristic setting to interrogate the aftermath of the EDSA Revolution of 1986, and includes ironic references to Lino Brocka (the Canness Interplanetary Film Festival’s Pan d’Or to the founding director of the New Wave Social Surrealist Movement, Ishmael Brocka) and to Lav Diaz (in the name Lab Diaz). How does your film (re)constructs the memory of recent Filipino history?
It doesn't. At least not consciously. I am a very forgetful person. My films are my memory. They document my conscious and subconscious life as they happen.
Who is Ishmael Brocka?
An amalgam of two of the most important filmmakers in the 2nd golden age of Philippine Cinema: Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka. Their best films deal with the dark side of the Pinoy psyche/reality.
What is Lab Diaz?
It is the laboratory of the mad doctor Kepweng where each operation lasts five to ten hours, in reference to Lav Diaz who make 5-10 hour films.
How would you describe your relationship to Lino Brocka and Lav Diaz?
Lino Brocka is the father of The Brockas, the punk-rock equivalent of a zombie, the band that never dies, but is constantly dead. I sing and write the songs, and play guitar and keyboards. Lav Diaz plays lead guitar.
Every time The Brockas play, we get things thrown at us: duck eggs, water bottles. Barangay tanods (village security personnel) try to arrest us for disturbing the peace. One time we had to leave the venue via a window. Looking back, I’m amazed by our energy, and the audience’s enthusiasm.
What about other Filipino directors?
Occasionally, some of us break bread for birthdays and funerals. But for the most part, each filmmaker is an island in this archipelago of cinema.
In Misericordia - The Last Mystery of Kristo Vampiro (2013), it’s the vampire-like figure of the Aswang that seems to guide the film through its depiction of the Philippines. The red filter gives the images a bloody atmosphere, enhancing the presence of blood as a theme in the fictional voiceover of Kristo Vampiro and in the documentary depiction of cockfights and religious rituals. What’s your relationship with Filipino folklore, understood as a previous repertoire of stories and characters?
Filipino folklore informs my films in a subconscious way. These are the first stories I heard when I was a child. I draw from it like a magician's well.
The vampire-like figure of the Aswang resembles a metaphor of the work of endless appropriation that is at stake in your work. In Brazil, it is the figure of the cannibal that, at least since 1922 and Oswald de Andrade's "Manifesto Antropófago" (1928), has offered artists a powerful metaphor of creativity. Is your work somehow related to this sort of anthropophagic or cannibalistic sensibility?
The Aswang is a shapeshifting vampire that is difficult to pin down. In my work, I try to explore and exhaust all cinematic possibilities. I believe in the idea of the cinema cannibal.
The difference between fiction and documentary film is a recurring question for anyone watching your films. How do you deal with this question in your creative process?
There is no difference. It's all the same. I see all my films as documentary fictions, autobiographical make-believe. Documenting my inner and outer lives, dreaming and waking states, fictionalizing the truth, reality, from the deep past to the imaginary future.
In your opinion, what’s the importance of Hollywood today? What about European national cinemas?
Hollywood is important for brainwashing automatons.
The cinema of each culture is important to document and provoke that culture.
There are important cinematographic traditions all over the world, but they remain hardly visible outside specific film festivals, whose public is also very limited in its diversity. What’s your interest in such cinematographic traditions? Do you think you represent one those traditions?
I only represent myself.
I find affinity in filmmakers and artists from different parts of the globe and from different time periods, but coincidentally share a fascination and a love for the absurd, the strange, the surreal, the unexplainable, the black comedy of life on this planet.
Whether I like it or not, whether I deny it or not, I am a Filipino filmmaker.
I am both a product/son/child of Philippine cinema and world cinema.
My left foot is on Philippine soil, the other is on the Dead Sea.
Physically, I am from the Philippines. Spiritually, I am from the Galapagos.
Are there any influential films and/or filmmakers from Brazil that you consider important for your conception of cinema?
I am a big fan of Pelé and Egberto Gismonti.
I am aware of but not an expert on Machado de Assis, Vinicius de Moraes, Jorge de Lima.
I am interested in Augusto Boal and Jorge Amado.
I only know Black Orpheus and the films by Hector Babenco, Fernando Meirelles, and Walter Salles.
I must admit I need a crash course on Cinema Novo and Brazilian cinema.
Professor de história e teoria do cinema da Faculdade de Comunicação da UFBA, em Salvador. Nascido em São Paulo, de onde saiu aos 9 anos de idade, já morou em Goiânia, Brasília, Florianópolis e Montréal. É pesquisador e crítico de cinema e cultura visual, programador e curador de mostras e festivais de cinema, doutor em Arte e Cultura Visual, com pesquisa sobre cinema e direitos humanos. É indeciso e nervoso, tenta ser leve e cuidadoso, consegue ser magro e comer muito.